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Beating the Packers

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What do the Vikings need to do to keep their division title hopes alive?

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings Green Bay Press Gazette-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings take-on the Green Bay Packers at US Bank stadium tonight.

A win for either team would make a statement in the division, and likely have some postseason seeding implications, but mostly this game may be about building momentum into the postseason.

Barring a collapse in Detroit week 17, the Packers have the division wrapped up regardless of what happens Monday night, but need a win against the Vikings to keep their first-round bye hopes alive.

For the Vikings, they’re also playing to improve their playoff seed, and would gain the #5 seed by winning tonight and next Sunday. And if the Packers lost to the Lions next Sunday, the NFC North crown would be theirs too.

Beyond all that, however, this game is important for both teams in establishing or maintaining momentum into the postseason.

Packers Make the Most of Their Opportunities...

The Packers have managed to get to an 11-3 record, despite allowing about 500 yards more than they’ve gained on the season, by thriving in two key metrics: turnovers and red zone efficiency- on both sides of the ball.

The Packers offense ranks 21st in yards, but 14th in points, largely because the Packers defense is 7th in takeaways - giving Aaron Rodgers more opportunities - and because Rodgers delivers in the red zone. Rodgers is 2nd best in the league when inside an opponent’s 20 yard line - converting 68.9% of those opportunities into touchdowns.

...But Have Trouble Driving Them

The problem for the Packers’ offense, however, is getting to the red zone. Despite the Packers’ defense being adept at generating takeaways this season, the Packers’ offense has struggled on 3rd down - converting only 35.5% of their 3rd downs. That ranks only 22nd in the league, and is consistent with their yards gained ranking.

And that has led to a lot of 3-and-out drives for the Packers’ offense, which ranks 27th in the league on that metric, failing to get a first down on 25.5% of their drives.

Beyond that, the Packers’ offense is also dependent on quick starts to each half - particularly to begin the game. The Packers are ranked 3rd in 1st quarter points scored, and 10th in 3rd quarter points scored. But they’re 27th in both 2nd and 4th quarter points scored. They’ve been successful with their beginning script of plays - no more so than against the Vikings week two - and can also benefit from half-time adjustments it would seem. But in both cases that initial momentum grows cold rather quickly, leading to many games where the Packers built an early lead, but languished the rest of the game waiting for the final whistle.

And That’s How You Beat the Packers

Given all of the above, the solution for beating the Packers presents itself: Don’t give them turnovers, and keep them out of the red zone. That may be easier said than done, but the Vikings have a defense that can get off the field on third down, and is the 4th stingiest in the red zone. And the Vikings offense has done a good job taking care of the ball - except week two against the Packers.

A lot has changed for the Vikings offense since then, and particularly Kirk Cousins, who has played lights out since week four and currently is 4th in passer rating and 2nd in adjusted net yards per attempt - notably higher than Aaron Rodgers in both metrics. Cousins had two interceptions in the week two Packers game, but only 3 in the 12 games since.

The Vikings have gone 8-2 since week four, the only losses being of the one-score variety, on the road, against current 1st and 3rd seeds in the playoffs, and without the services of top receiver Adam Thielen.

Vikings Offense Will Have Opportunities Too

Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has said he main goal is to stop the opponent’s passing attack, which runs afoul of the traditional defensive goal of stopping the run first, making a team one-dimensional and in difficult down-and-distance situations, and then pressuring the quarterback.

Pettine’s philosophy shows up on the stat sheet, as the Packers defense ranks 24th in defending the run. But the pass defense isn’t all that much better, ranking 22nd in passing yards allowed, despite only 16th in pass attempts against. They rank 23rd in net yards allowed per passing attempt. The best part of their pass defense is in the red zone, where they rank 5th in TD passes allowed. They are also 5th in interceptions.

So, between the Packers run and pass defense, the Vikings will have opportunities to drive the field. The key will be cashing-in in the red zone.

Game Plans

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Packers adapt the Seahawks game plan, using more of a run-heavy offense than in the past behind Aaron Jones, with Rodgers taking occasional shots down the field.

Defensively, I suspect Mike Pettine will stick to his mantra of trying to stop the pass first, especially with Dalvin Cook out, and letting the Vikings run game behind Mike Boone beat them.

For the Vikings, I think Kevin Stefanski will be happy to run the ball against the Packers’ 24th ranked run defense, and have Kirk Cousins take what the defense gives in the passing game. Having a full compliment of receivers and tight ends to work with should give Cousins and Stefanski options in the passing game, and the Packers have been susceptible to the occasional screen pass as well. The Packers had difficulty with the 49ers offense, which like the Vikings is heavy play-action, and also defending TE George Kittle, who went 6/6 for 129 yards. I wouldn’t be surprised for Kyle Rudolph and perhaps Irv Smith to have good games.

Defensively, I suspect the Vikings will focus first on keeping Aaron Jones in check, particularly in the red zone, and limiting Davante Adams. Xavier Rhodes has shadowed Adams in the past, but I suspect that may not continue this time, in part because Rhodes has been losing that match-up too many times. Mike Hughes may get some reps against Adams, and perhaps Holton Hill as well.

It will be interesting to see what Mike Zimmer dials up for Aaron Rodgers in terms of pressure packages this time. He blitzed about a third of the time week two, but Rodgers held up well in those situations. I don’t expect big changes, but perhaps a few wrinkles along the defensive line to help get pressure on Rodgers.

Bottom Line

This is a game where situational football may be key. Which team does better on 3rd down, in the red zone, and has the most turnovers. Field position and time of possession may figure in to the equation as well.

If the Vikings defense can limit Aaron Jones and the Packers’ outside passing game, it could be a long night for Aaron Rodgers and company.

On the other hand, if the Packers offense starts out strong, as it did week two, and the Vikings give away some early Christmas presents, it could be a disappointing night for Vikings fans.

I suspect home field advantage will help the Vikings early on, and the development of the Vikings offense since week two will be enough to power past the the Packers at home.

Poll

The Vikings are 4.5 favorites at home tonight. Will they...

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    Win and beat the spread
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  • 23%
    Win but not beat the spread
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  • 15%
    Lose
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